The NBC series breaks the reality TV mold by watching celebrities exploring their family trees.
Who Do You Think You Are? is not breathtaking television. Not unless you find it exhilarating to leaf through musty volumes of century-old tax rolls. The NBC genealogy series, which concludes its third season tonight, is reality TV without drunken nightclub brawls, rose ceremonies, or tribal councils. Most of the people we meet have been dead for generations. All that happens, really, is that a guest star—which this season has included Marisa Tomei, Martin Sheen, and Rob Lowe—traces a branch of their family tree. Usually, they do this by looking at old things in dusty, out-of-the-way places, with deeply nerdy historians and/or archivists beside them.
Yet WDYTYA is extraordinarily watchable television. Learning about the genealogist's research tools and methods is exciting for anyone who cares about history—especially the personal kind. And beyond the academic appeal, the show inevitably offers a huge, life-affirming payoff at the end. It's reality TV that even Newton Minnow would have loved—a rare combination of intellectual and emotional appeal.
That draw, clearly, is universal. NBC's version, produced by ex-Friend Lisa Kudrow, is adapted from the BBC series by the same name. There are also versions in Canada, Ireland and South Africa. The Israeli variant is Mi Ata Hoshev She'ata?. In Norway, it's Hvem tror du at du er? And so on.
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But call it exceptionalism, patriotism, or chauvinism, it seems the WDYTYA premise is uniquely suited to Americans, a nation of blank slates—immigrants and refugees assimilated from every other country and culture on earth.